Scheer's messaging on abortion cost him votes on both sides of the debate, say observers

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer's attempt to reconcile his views on abortion and same-sex marriage may have cost him votes among Canadians who see themselves as "progressive" — but some say it also eroded his support among social conservatives.

'The ... socially conservative voting bloc was in absolute dismay' - Hanna Kepka, Campaign Life Coalition

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer will meet with his caucus for the first time after the Oct. 21 election this Wednesday. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer's attempt to reconcile his views on abortion and same-sex marriage may have cost him votes among Canadians who see themselves as "progressive" — but some say it also eroded his support among social conservatives.

Dogged by questions about his personal views throughout the 40-day campaign, Scheer said he is anti-abortion, but promised a Scheer government would not re-open the debate to limit a woman's right to choose, or act to roll back same-sex marriage rights.

Throughout the campaign, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau worked to convince pro-choice Canadians that Scheer's hands-off assurances weren't good enough. Conservative strategist Ginny Roth said those Liberal efforts were "impactful" and repeatedly knocked Scheer off message.

Hanna Kepka of Campaign Life Coalition called Scheer's campaign message on abortion and same-sex marriage "weak."

"Every time he spoke in this way, we were just seeing shots in the foot," she said in an interview with CBC Radio's The House, airing Saturday.

"The very significant socially conservative voting bloc was in absolute dismay every time he said something like this, because it showed an individual who seems to be conflicted between his private position and his public position, which you do not see at all on the left side of the spectrum."

Kepka said she did not want to speculate on the fate of Scheer's leadership, but said social conservatives, including some in the influential immigrant population, are looking for a strong advocate — not someone "who acknowledges that view is out there, but won't give it any voice."

She said she believes Scheer's approach to these issues cost him the election.

"We were counting on Andrew Scheer to be a faithful Catholic, a faithful man of God who would stand for those fundamental positions, not only in his private life, but also in the public square," Kepka told CBC's Chris Hall.

Conservative caucus to meet

Scheer is scheduled to meet with his caucus Wednesday for the first time since the Conservatives' disappointing finish in the Oct. 21 election. While the party increased its seat count and popular vote, many insiders believe Scheer lost what should have been a slam-dunk victory over Trudeau's scandal-plagued Liberals.

Former Conservative cabinet minister Peter MacKay argued it was like "having a breakaway on an open net and missing the net," and said the debate over social issues was partly to blame.

"That was thrust on the agenda and [it] hung around Andrew Scheer's neck like a stinking albatross, quite frankly. And he wasn't able to deftly deal with those issues when the opportunities arose," he said during an event in Washington Wednesday.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, also a former Conservative cabinet minister, said he disagreed with MacKay's assessment.

"Andrew's position on those questions is the same as Stephen Harper's, who won three elections, including a historic majority. That is to say, people have a range of views in our pluralistic society, but that a Conservative government wouldn't change the law on those matters," Kenney said in an interview Friday on CBC News Network's Power & Politics.

"Peter ran under the same policy three times, as did I, and we won three elections."

Roth said she believes Canadians made their voting decisions based on a variety of factors, including the party leader and platform promises, and not because of any single issue. She said Scheer was selected as leader, and remains her preferred choice, because his position on abortion is acceptable to a broad range of Canadians.

"He represents exactly what every Conservative is confident will hold the party together ... this big tent concept (that) we have to be a home for social conservatives, we have to be a home for red Tories, we have to be a home for fiscal conservatives," she said.

"And we have to attract voters that don't necessarily identify as Conservative, but who think we have the best offering in the context of an election."

Tracking anti-abortion candidates

Campaign Life said 48 candidates who got the organization's "green light" due to their views on abortion won their seats in the general election.

RightNow, another anti-abortion group, studied past voting records and surveyed candidates; it says the House of Commons now includes 68 anti-abortion incumbents and newly elected MPs. (Liberal and NDP leaders currently do not allow caucus members to vote in support of any anti-abortion legislation.)

Scott Hayward, co-founder of RightNow, said of the 53 anti-abortion MPs who ran for re-election, 52 held their seats. That marks an increase over 2015, when 80 candidates deemed anti-abortion by the organization ran for re-election and only 40 retained their seats.

People take part in the March For Life rally on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, May 9, 2019. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Hayward said of the 22 newly elected Conservatives, at least 15 are anti-abortion. About 56 per cent of the party's caucus is now in the anti-abortion camp, he said.

Despite those gains, Hayward said many anti-abortion voters are disappointed in Scheer's handling of the issue during the campaign.

"I think he tried to thread the needle on trying to keep people who are not pro-life within the party happy ... and ended up not making anyone happy," he said.

Support slips in GTA

The Conservatives lost votes in the Greater Toronto Area. Hayward said that reflects social conservatives choosing not to volunteer or vote in the crucial vote-rich region because they were disappointed by Scheer's "garbled" answers.

He said the last time the Conservatives saw an increase in their GTA vote was in 2011 — when the party had an explicitly anti-abortion policy, to defund abortions overseas.

"The only time pro-lifers had a bit of a bone thrown to them, they came out in droves," he said. "When they haven't given [them] anything, particularly in the GTA, they did not come out."

Hayward suggested that, in order to hang on to his leadership and beat Trudeau in the next election, Scheer should be offering social conservatives policies they want — a ban on sex-selective abortions, for example, or the elimination of funding for abortions overseas, or preventing the potential expansion of medical assistance in dying to minors and those with mental illnesses.

Hayward said RightNow's objective is to reduce the number of abortions "as much as possible."

According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, just over 94,000 abortions were reported in hospitals and clinics in 2017, the most recent year for which statistics are available. That number is down from nearly 98,000 in 2016 and more than 100,000 in 2015.

Scheer has been meeting with senior members of his caucus ahead of Wednesday's planned gathering with the full slate of newly elected or re-elected Conservatives.

The Conservatives will hold a party convention and leadership review in April. However, the Reform Act, introduced by Conservative MP Michael Chong and passed into law in 2015, gives MPs the power to trigger a leadership review and to vote to eject their leader.

At least for now, most MPs are showing a united front and publicly backing Scheer.

Pro-choice Canadians hold signs at the March For Life rally on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, May 9, 2019. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)


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